The factions of the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC, al-Hashed al-Shaabi) constitute a real challenge to the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi who had pledged in his government programme to establish the state sovereignty, limit the possession of weapons to the state, and organize the Iraqi military establishment in an effective and serious manner. Kadhimi’s promises came amidst a general feeling of depression and mistrust among the Iraqi people as a result of the repeated promises that were offered without being met by the former governments.
This paper sheds light on the conflict of wills between the Kadhimi government and the PMC factions.
Fayyadh’s reformist decisions
Pro-Iran PMC factions exhibit clear fear of the endeavours by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to remove or undermine the authority of those factions after it had swelled under former Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. Kadhimi (who is accused by leaders of (pro-Iran) loyalist factions within the PMC of cooperating with the US in killing the former PMC deputy chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the commander of the Iranian Quds Corps Qasem Soleimani early 2020) believes that the PMC constitutes the most prominent obstacle that stands in the way of implementing his government’s programme, particularly with regard to the security aspect, after the pro-Iran PMC factions have come to constitute what resembles a deep state within the Iraqi state. In addition to their security and military influence, after the recent elections, the PMC factions gained a political cover when their representative, the Fatah Bloc, came second in terms of the number of Members of Parliament (MPs).
PMC chairman Falih al-Fayyadh sought to reassure Kadhimi by taking a series of new decisions on 3 June 2020 with the declared aim of reforming the PMC system according to its law enacted in 2016. The decisions provided for the following:
While it is difficult to implement some of its items, the Note of the decisions package, in itself, constitutes a new shift in the policy of the PMC chairman who seeks to dissipate the fears of the new Prime Minister with regard to the PMC. However, the question centres on how far Fayyadh is capable of committing those factions to his instructions and of implementing this new structure, given that many factions recognize Fayyadh only formally in order to receive the financial budget allocated to them. Besides, the question being posed is: how far is Kadhimi capable of containing the loyalist factions, particularly those that do not have political wings, such as the Hezbollah Battalions, the Nujaba, and the Sayyid al-Shuhada (Sayyid of Martyrs) Battalions, defying their arrogance, and imposing the power of law on them, given that those factions know that Kadhimi lacks a political backer and that he came to power based on a political consensus?
Therefore, it is too early to offer clear and final answers to those questions. However, evidence indicates that Kadhimi follows a strategy of “quiet containment” in the face of the PMC militias.
Kadhimi and the containment strategy
It can be said that the containment strategy implemented by Kadhimi to undermine the authority of the factions and actually organize the PMC establishment within the framework of the Iraqi state is based on the following components:
First, underlining that the PMC is part of the state’s security and military system. On 16 May 2020, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited the PMC headquarters in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in the presence of Fayyadh and his deputy Abdul-Aziz al-Mohammedawi “Abu Fadak” (a controversial Iraqi figure who is considered one of the leading Iranian arms within the PMC, is loyal specifically to the Hezbollah Battalions, and was an Iranian representative in Syria alongside the current commander of the Quds Corps Esmail Qaani). Prior to his visit to the PMC headquarters, Kadhimi visited the headquarters of the Ministries of Defence and the Interior and the Counter Terrorism Service, a step that was meant to underline that all security services, including the PMC, are subject to the authority of the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces.
Second, implementing the PMC law and all the decisions and executive orders related to its structure. The directives of the PMC chairman on 3 June 2020 are a confirmation of this approach.
Third, winning the sympathy of the Sistani factions which enjoy a positive reputation in the general Shiite community. It was remarkable that during his visit to the PMC headquarters, Kadhimi was accompanied by leaders of the Sistani Authority factions that had announced their withdrawal from the PMC a few weeks prior to his inauguration. This indicates that Kadhimi adopts the demands of those factions that are in line with his government programme (the demands of those factions can be summarized in refraining from politicizing the PMC and from immersing it in the axes policy, particularly between Washington and Tehran). Consequently, in his attempts to contain the loyalist factions, Kadhimi invokes the support of an important Mobilization segment, namely the Authority Mobilization units.
Fourth, withdrawing some posts from the PMC. Kadhimi split the post of National Security Adviser from the chairmanship of the PMC. He appointed the former Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji as chairman of the National Security Advisory to succeed Fayyadh who contented himself with the post of PMC chairman. Kadhimi also removed Fayyadh from the post of head of the National Security Agency and appointed to that position instead Lieutenant-General Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, the most prominent retired leader of the Counter Terrorism Service.
Fifth, benefitting from the disagreement within the Fatah Alliance, which constitutes the political cover for all of the PMC’s loyalist factions, and from the division among those factions with regard to the Kadhimi government. While the leader of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Ameri opted for supporting the designation of Kadhimi and his government, other factions opposed his designation and refrained from endorsing his government. Among the leading factions opposed to Kadhimi are Kataib Jund al-Imam led by MP Ahmed al-Asadi (spokesman of the Fatah Alliance), the Imam Ali Battalions led by Shibl al-Zaidi (both factions had assumed the Ministries of Agriculture and Communications under the Abdul Mahdi government), as well as the Sayyid al-Shuhada Battalions and the Hezbollah Battalions, both factions having independent MPs dispersed within the Fatah Alliance. As for the Asaib Ahl al-Haq faction led by Qais al-Khazali, it had taken positions that do not correspond with the political reality. On the one hand, it launches media attacks on the new Prime Minister. On the other hand, the technocrat nominees for the Ministries of Culture and Labor and Social Affairs are not approved without negotiation and arrangement with the pro-Asaib al-Sadiqoun (Speakers of the Truth) parliamentary bloc. With regard to the factions of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), namely Saraya Ashura and Saraya Ansar al-Aqeeda, they have adopted the position of dealing with Kadhimi to maintain the benefits of the Supreme Council that were gained under the previous government at the Office of the Prime Minister and the Advisory Board, in addition to some investments acquired by the Council thanks to the presence of the Council’s leading figure Abu Jihad al-Hashimi in the post of chief of staff in the former Prime Minister’s Office (at the grade of Minister). Hardline Shiite factions seek to hide their internal disagreements from their general doctrinal audience.
However, Kadhimi’s attempts to contain the PMC will not pass without major difficulties, mainly the ongoing insurgency announced by the Hezbollah Battalions against the official authority, and the occasional shelling by Sayyid al-Shuhada Battalions of US headquarters inside the capital Baghdad with a view to embarrassing the new government internationally and demonstrating its weakness in restricting the possession of arms to the state (over the last few weeks, US camps and the US embassy in Baghdad were targeted three times when they came under mortar attack from unknown areas in the capital).
Omens of conflict between the State and the non-State
On 26 June 2020, a force from the Counter Terrorism Service stormed a headquarters belonging to the Hezbollah Battalions in Iraq (the fiercest Iranian faction in the country) at the Dora district in southern Baghdad and managed to arrest nearly 13 Battalions operatives based on intelligence indicating the group’s intention to renew the shelling of US interests within the Green Zone (home of the government and international missions) and the Baghdad International Airport.
That operation, which received large-scale popular support, constituted a test of the state authority that Kadhimi promised to regain from the hands of armed Shiite groups. However, things did not turn out in favour of the state as was hoped by the Iraqi Prime Minister. For a few hours, several areas of the capital Baghdad fell in the hands of that militia during its military parade in the Karrada district, Palestine Street and close to the Green Zone itself. In addition, the parade ended with laying a siege on an alternative headquarters of the Counter Terrorism Service inside the Green Zone after the military commander responsible for the Zone (which was appointed to his post based on a recommendation by the Fatah Alliance leader Hadi al-Ameri) refused to implement Kadhimi’s orders to resist the storming of the Zone by the Battalions, which drove Kadhimi to take the decision of replacing him with one of the Intelligence Service officers.
Accounts have indicated the success of the political mediation by Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Ameri with the foremost leader of the Hezbollah Battalions in Iraq, known as Abu Fadak, for the evacuation of the militia’s forces from the Green Zone and halting the armed deployment in some of the capital’s districts. Furthermore, the government took a step that was described as a “compromise” when it kept the detainees in the custody of the PMC Security Directorate, considering that they are PMC operatives and, therefore, have to be arrested and interrogated by the Service to which they belong.
However, the release of most of the arrested Battalions operatives one day later due to insufficient evidence and the spread of their pictures while they trample on a picture of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi constituted a setback for Kadhimi’s endeavour to impose the rule of state and law, particularly that the incident was followed by explicit threats by the loyalist factions, as in the case of the statements by the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq Qais al-Khazali who warned Kadhimi of confronting the PMC, saying that “the Kadhimi government is a temporary one whose goal is to hold early parliamentary elections and ensure the country’s security and health, nothing more”.
Response to Kadhimi’s endeavours came through the assassination of the security and political analyst Hisham al-Hashimi (a figure close to the Prime Minister who, in most of his statements, used to denounce the behaviour of the militias and call for the need to impose state authority), in front of his house in the Zayouna district east of the capital on 6 July 2020. Suspicions centred on the Hezbollah Battalions in Iraq after activists close to Hashimi revealed that he informed them of receiving a threat from the same accused faction. The assassination of Hashimi has shaken both the local and international communities and constituted a clear message to Kadhimi and advocates of “restricting the possession of arms to the state”.
Strangling the factions economically
After the security file, Iraqi border crossings were the second of the files on which a conflict has been taking place between the Iraqi government and the pro-Iran armed factions. Those crossings constitute an important and vital economy for Iran’s actual recovery through its influential militias in Iraq.
According to the Border Ports Commission (BPC) itself, Iraqi border crossings generate huge revenues that have reached 150 billion Iraqi dinars in May and June 2020 as the value collected by the Customs and Tax services. There are 22 land and sea crossings, most suffering from clear and significant corruption due to the domination on them by pro-Tehran Shiite parties, particularly the crossings located in the governorates of Basra, Anbar, Nineveh, and Diyala.
Militias seek to benefit from the border crossings by allowing the passage of damaged and low-quality Iranian goods, smuggling of oil, drugs, arms and hard currency, and imposing royalties on imported goods. That is why, those crossings constitute economic lungs for Iran and important sources of financing the factions as well.
For weeks, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been threatening to open the file of the corruption of border crossings and the domination over them by what he called “gangs”, stating that the country loses nearly six billion dollars annually. On 11 July 2020, Kadhimi re-opened the Mandali border crossing in the Diyala Governorate which is a crossing for partial trade exchange between Iraq and Iran. He announced the start of a stage of restoring law and order to border crossings and threatened “to open fire on whoever violates the Customs campus”. Subsequently, on 15 July 2020, the Joint Operations Command of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence announced mandating the Basra Operations Command to take full control of the Shalamja Crossing with Iran and the Safwan Crossing with Kuwait. It also announced mandating the Navy Command to take full control of the maritime crossings in the Umm Qasr Port in Basra.
The battle between the government and the armed factions over border crossings is likely to be fiercer than that of restricting the possession of arms to the state, considering that the latter battle is visible and could be subject to political negotiation, temporal armistice and reconciliation based on the changing rules of the political game in Iraq, while the border crossings battle is an economic battle par excellence. Indeed, it is an existential battle for the pro-Iran factions in addition to the fact that those crossings constitute an economic breathing route for Iran in light of the US-imposed stringent sanctions on Tehran. Therefore, the file of government control over border crossings constitutes a difficult test in which success or failure by the Iraqi government would have enormous consequences.
Containing and downsizing the PMC is a complicated process that would take a long time before the results of its success could be obtained. The PMC militias and the political actors associated with them are the most influential in Iraq and are allied with Iran that controls the decision-making process in the country.
While Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is serious in implementing the steps of restricting arms in the state and restructuring the PMC, he needs significant political support that may not be attainable through the current Parliament that is comprised of a pro-Tehran Shiite majority and Sunni and Kurdish blocs that do not currently favour clashing with the PMC for fear of losing their interests and due to their desire to continue to engage in political activity. Extremist Shiite powers had previously exiled and distanced figures opposed to them, such as former Minister of Finance Rafi al-Issawi, former MP Najeh al-Mezan, former Mosul Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, and others.
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